Up to 10 new golf courses in Cancun to come

Here on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula – in a city known more for its eclectic mix of bustling tourists, Mayan ruins, a zona hotelera stuffed with resorts practically sharing walls, and a sea so blue-green as to enter the realm of the surreal – golf historically has not been a highlight.

With so many birds to watch, reefs to dive and history to absorb, few have come here specifically to hit a ball. If golf is your pursuit, then Cancun probably has not been your destination. Los Cabos, on Mexico’s western edge, is famous for its golf courses; Cancun, on the east, more for what nature has bestowed.

But there are plans to bring Cancun and its surroundings to a new level of golf respectability. There already is the addition of an upscale Jack Nicklaus design, joining strong layouts by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Robert Von Hagge. The Nicklaus course at Moon Palace opened in 2003. But it isn’t so much what has happened in Cancun golf. It’s what’s about to happen.

Construction will begin on as many as 10 new courses in the area in the next five years, including a TPC course that already is under way with another TPC 18 to follow on the same site. Tom Fazio and Nick Price are teaming on the TPC project, Greg Norman will design another of the planned courses and also renovate the Jones layout, and other big names are being bandied about.

Cabo of the East?

Those in the inner circles of Cancun golf don’t see that as an exaggeration.

“There are big plans for this area,” said Roberto Delgado, director of golf at the Golf Club at Moon Palace, the Nicklaus design that generally is regarded as the region’s finest. “Cancun is a very popular destination already, and golf hasn’t really been a big part of its appeal.

“The government has started to realize that with the core of tourism that already exists in Cancun, if an array of good, quality golf courses is added to the mix, the potential is unlimited.”

Cancun and its surrounds are not bereft of quality golf now, with the two Palace Resort courses leading the way. The Moon Palace layout, which opened in 2003, and the Golf Club at Playacar are two tracks that could hold their own anywhere in the world. The two most recent additions to the Cancun golf landscape instantly transformed an area previously dotted with only a smattering of resort-quality challenges.

No one in Cancun has more intimate knowledge of the two tracks than Juan Villaviecencio, a marshal who spent two years at Playacar before moving over to Moon Palace when it opened 11⁄2 years ago. He has golf-carted his way around the two courses for nearly four years, and he has been paying attention to much more than pace of play.

“Playacar is the more difficult of the two, and it is beautiful,” Villaviecencio said. “It challenges your game every time you play. Not only your game, but your ego.”

Playacar opened in 1994, but fell into almost immediate disrepair before being purchased by Palace Resorts in 2000. Money was poured into the course at the same time as Moon Palace was being built. When the simultaneous efforts were completed, Cancun golf had turned a corner.

The 46th staging of the Mexican Open was held at Moon Palace earlier this year, and the 2005 event will be held there as well. There is talk of larger events, putting Moon Palace on an even bigger stage.

“We know we have a world-class course,” said Delgado. “We have learned a lot by holding the Mexican Open, and we know the best players in the world would love this place. It can stand up to that kind of scrutiny, I assure you.”

Moon Palace is rated as a slightly less difficult challenge than Playacar, but not by much. Its fairways are wider and the tourist-friendly front tees are more manageable for vacationers. But from the tips, Moon Palace packs a punch for anyone.

The tests are tough at both, but the challenge isn’t the only toothy animal. Gray fox, crocodiles, deer, iguanas, aardvarks and several species of snakes-to-be-watched also add some teeth.

Cancun used to be the place you went to swim, ride horses, see the Mayan ruins of Tulum or snorkel . . . and maybe play some golf while you were here. The nongolf vacation activities are among the most enjoyable and unique you will find.

Tulum, about 90 minutes from the city, is an other-worldly experience, taking you to another time. Ancient Mayan ruins are perched on outcroppings elevated above the deep blue-green Caribbean Sea. It is one of the most peaceful and beautiful sites not only in this region, but anywhere on Earth, and offers a magnificent glance at the last great Mayan city.

The snorkeling along the Yucatan Coast is among the best in the world, with perhaps a slight nod to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Cancun locals admit that the Great Barrier Reef (the largest reef in the world at 1,600 kilometers) has it over Cancun in terms of size, but they will not defer to the Australian wonder when it comes to varieties of coral, fish, plants, sea mammals and reptiles.

“Australia’s reef is bigger, but there is no way you can tell me it’s better,” said Villaviecencio, who not only is a marshal but a self-styled Cancun booster who sings the area’s praises to all who will listen.  

Xcaret and Xel-Ha, two mega-nature parks, are day trips themselves.

Howler monkeys, pink Caribbean flamingoes, dolphins, white-tailed deer, tropical rain forest trails and one of the largest butterfly pavilions in the world fill Xcaret, all along the Mayan River. Jaguars, pumas, horses, a huge aquarium and more fill the two expansive islands that make up the experience.

Xel-Ha is another nature-filled pleasure. About 1 hour from Cancun, Xel-Ha features horseback riding in the jungle, where you might see any one of 350 species of plants or one of 100 bird species. There also are opportunities to swim with dolphins, ride bikes, go scuba diving or take eco-tours.

“There are so many beautiful places in Cancun,” said Villaviecencio. “Now that we have this course, and with all the other plans, it is very exciting. I cannot wait to see where this all ends up.”

Before the two Palace Resort courses were opened, however, the golf didn’t quite stack up to the other reasons to visit Cancun.

The Hilton Cancun Golf Club is a decent track, to be sure, and it’s convenient being right in the Hotel Zone along the Caribbean. It is a well-maintained layout, but it is resort golf – not the brand that serves as an allure for the serious golf traveler. Pancho the crocodile makes his home along the 17th tee, peacocks greet you in the parking lot and there are several pretty holes. The Hilton course definitely is worth a stop if you are in Cancun, but you probably wouldn’t go to Cancun specifically to play it.

“We are proud of this course,” said Vianell Castillo, assistant manager at the Hilton track. “It is well-maintained, we’ve upgraded the irrigation system, and we view ourselves as a very enjoyable round for the resort golfer.

“And look at our No. 18. Across water onto a beautiful green. It’s a very nice finishing hole.”

The Cozumel Country Club, quite a drive (not to mention a ferry ride) from the center of Cancun, is loaded with native mangroves, and water comes into play on 15 holes. Once again, a nice round, but hardly worth a trip to Mexico to play. Then there is Puerto Aventuras, a nine-hole, par-36, quick in-and-out course, and the 18-hole, par-54 Mayan Palace.

Pok-ta-Pok (stroke by stroke), as it was known before it was renamed Club de Golf Cancun, is a solid Jones Jr. design, but its drainage once was so poor that locals referred to it as “Pok-ta-Pool.” That is changing now that the course has been taken over by Avalon Resorts. Greg Norman is leading a renovation that will include a gutting of the irrigation system and a complete overhaul of the course.

The money being poured into Pok-ta-Pok to bring it to a first-class level is indicative of what is going on in Cancun. Now, the aforementioned resort courses can serve as ample enhancement to a golf trip highlighted by the two Moon Palace courses as well as the other planned layouts.

There are blueprints seemingly being drawn all over town. Stories and rumors abound of who will be involved in the new “Mexican Golf Mecca of the East.” However, what is more than rumor is the TPC project already under way.

When the licensing agreement between the PGA Tour and Buena Vista Hospitality Group was announced in December 2003, the course was to be an 18-hole project designed by Price as a centerpiece for a 2,000-acre residential community. Since then, plans have blossomed to 36 holes, with Fazio designing the second 18 and Price acting as player consultant. The PGA Tour will provide technical assistance.

As part of the licensing agreement, the TPC of Cancun won’t actually be owned by the Tour, but the fact that a TPC course will be located in an area previously not known for world-class golf is a huge boon to the region.

“We know what bringing the TPC name to Cancun means for the area,” said Colin Wright of Buena Vista Hospitality Group. “The name brings with it instant credibility. It tells people immediately that this is a place they can feel comfortable with without even seeing it, that it is a great golf course.”

In a region so conscious of its culture and mindful of its history, golf looks to play an ever-increasing role in its future. There was a time, not very long ago, when thoughts of the game taking such an integral role would have been folly.

“People with money, people in the government here just didn’t think about golf,” said Villavicencio, wearing a large hat and smile as he carted off to marshal the pace at Moon Palace. “But that is changing.

“Just watch and see.”

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